Visa to Heaven
By Patrick Tagbo Oguejiofor
When Ephraim returned from his fruitless search for job that evening, he was heavily depressed. He was still resting on the worn-out cushion when his wife walked in and flung a letter at him and walked out of the room without a word.
Ephraim had an obsession for letters. Even when walking on the street he would unseal and read a letter immediately he got it as if the letter would not wait to be read afterwards. But he felt more depressed when he finished reading the letter. The letter was from his landlord, warning he would be thrown out of the house if he fails to immediately pay his three months outstanding rent.
He stood up to go to the bar for a drink to drown away his sorrows but suddenly stopped when he remembered that he had no money on him. He sat back again. His wife’s abuse kept re-echoing in his mind’s ears.
Then his attention shifted to the room. It was almost bare and dirty. The chairs were worn-out and there was no centre table. The curtain that was old, torn and ragged. Since loosing his job with the giant construction company after the firm completed a bridge project things have been turning from bad to worse for him and his family.
Construction firms in Nigeria were notorious for low remunerations and their jobs lacked security. For the past six months or so he has been moving from one place to the other in search of jobs that was not really there. He had attended four interviews all without success. Then he resorted to picking up casual jobs with daily pay whenever he found one. But these days loading and off-loading jobs were hard to come by.
Although his wife had been supportive with her petty-trading, she has simply refused to accept the hard fact that success or failure does not always depended on an individual’s efforts and that the unseen hand of fate has a lot to play in the matter, and indeed in all human endeavors.
Suddenly, his eyes caught the clock on the wall and he remembered that he had a ‘fellowship’ to attend that day. A man he met at a building site had invited him to come and ‘worship’ with them at their The True Believers Bible Church at Surulere area of Lagos. Ephraim had engaged the man in a long argument before he finally accepted to ‘fellowship’ with them.
‘I do not think my coming to your church will serve any purpose’, he said to the man.
‘Why do you think so?’ The man asked curiously, with a friendly tone.
‘Because I no longer have faith in God,” Ephraim replied.
‘And what, if I may ask, pushed you to that extreme?’
‘The numerous troubles of this life, my brother’, he replied. Ephraim then went on to relate his catalogue of woes to the man he was meeting for the first time. He was a very patient listener.
“Your story is indeed very sad, and I deeply sympathize with you.’
‘The question is where God was when all these were happening to me?’ Ephraim asked of no one in particular. He was surprised with himself. He was not used to opening up. H rarely mentions his trouble to any one. But the man smiled again and again. It was as if he was talking to a physician with the perfect solution to an ailment that has defiled cure.
‘God was at the same spot where he was when his only son was nailed to the cross for the sins he never committed. Your troubles are but little. The answer is simple too.’
‘And what is the answer?’
‘Christ is the answer. What you need is Christ. You are in this predicament because you have failed to recognize Christ as your Lord and personal savior.’
Systematically, the man told Ephraim the story of the new birth, purification, sanctification, dedication and the ‘fire baptism’, all experiences he must undergo before his problems will be over.
He concluded that Christ was the only answer again and that Ephraim may continue his fruitless search for a cure without Christ to his detriment. Everything sounded like Latin to Ephraim who had never attended a church service for the past fifteen years. All the same, he decided to give the new faith a trial.
Who knows, it might hold the secret key to opening the doors of his success and bringing his endless woes to an end. There was no harm in trial, he thought to himself as he saw no direct link between his getting a job and going to church. There was this Igbo saying that a man whose horse was missing searches for it everywhere including the rooftop. He has nothing to lose going to worship at The True Believers Bible Church. It was within walk-able distance from his house.
So he stood up and jumped into one of his few pairs of trousers that were still presentable for attending such occasion. He told his wife he was going out. But the woman simply ignored him, unsympathetically. The preacher had told him that people searching for the ‘new birth’ needed ‘spiritual power’ to overcome problems of the physical realm. He needed spiritual deliverance through the blood of Jesus to win the battle against the powers of darkness that were responsible for all his woes.
He moved down the street hurriedly. The traffic jam was as terrible as ever. The horns from the automobiles blared endless were as defining as they were irritating. There was chaos everywhere as if the world was on the brink of collapse. At a point, everything became stagnant. Vehicles were no longer moving. Eventually, he boarded a bus and arrived his destination which was just 4 kilometers away from his house.
He arrived late. The church was in full brim. They were in their prayer and worship session’ when an usher showed him where to stay. But he could not fit into what was goi9ng on. It was another chaos. Some people were rolling on the ground like victims of epilepsy. Some were crying out to god to hear them.
Some were singing to themselves with their eyes closed. Others were simply drowned in their own sweats praying, demonstrating with heir hands and feet. While some prayed silently with only their lips moving like the Biblical Hannah, others were shouting to God at the top of their voices. The church pianist was sweating, dishing out harsh tunes from the sacred songs and Solos.
Then it began to rain without warning. The heavy drone of the falling rain and the prayers and songs gave the church an air of chaos. A particular woman wailing voice almost downed off the rest voices. Some were swaying their necks to the rhythm of the song ‘Jesus only is our Message’ music pervading the atmosphere.
‘In Jesus name we have prayed!’ Came a voice over the loudspeaker.
‘Amen!’ Echoed the congregation in unison.
This was repeated twice and absolute silence reigned immediately. You would think you were in a grave yard when you remember the scene was once filled with divine chaos moments ago.
‘You may sit down,’ thundered the voice from the pulpit.
The rain has stopped when they sat down. The director of programme announced that the ‘man of God’ will now deliver the ‘Word of God’. The announcer as was the custom with the sect did not give the name of the preacher.
The preacher spoke for about 2 hours on purification, dedication, the new ‘fire baptism’ and holiness unto the Lord without which no eyes can see God.
He spoke about the sins committed by forbears as factors that could militate against success in an individual’s life. In conclusion, he said that the solution to all life’s problems was in deciding for Christ, a prerequisite for purification, dedication and the fire baptism which are the perfect state for a man to attain heaven. Every other thing will end in futility and in the lake of eternal fire in the very end, he warned.
At the end of the preaching, the preacher made an ‘altar call’ inviting people to come forward and ‘surrender to Christ’. The teaching was very strange to Ephraim who was a nominal Catholic. But he stood up all the same because he was told it was the new experience that holds the key to setting him free from his troubles.
But he could not bring himself to raise his hands even though all have been asked to close their eyes. He was feeling very shy. But just then the Holy Spirit began to whisper to the preacher, or so he told his audience.
‘There is somebody here who had been praying for a child for the past seven years. Today is your night if you come out. There is a 30 year old man that still urinates in bed. Come forward for your deliverance. Somebody here lost a large sum of money to advance fee fraudsters…’
On and on the preacher went revealing what the Holy Spirit whispered to him. Each revelation usually sees about two or three worshippers moving up to the rostrum to answer the call at the foot of the cross.
‘There is a young man who has been seeking for a job for the past one year without success. You are on the verge of frustration and have been riddled with poverty and want. You have even contemplated suicide sometimes in the recent past. Except you come and surrender at the foot of the cross of Christ you will never be free from the shackles of sin, so says the Lord God of host.’
Ephraim though he was the one. But he hesitated. Then his legs started to move and he found himself among the crowd that surrounded the preacher in search of deliverance. When the preacher finished making his revelations, he prayed for all of them and put them through the vows of accepting Christ as their Lord and personal savior.
The church finally dismissed at about . Before Ephraim left the ‘worship centre’ as they call their gathering place, his name and address were taken and carefully recorded. Thereafter, a member was attached to him for ‘follow up’ exercise. This was to ensure he never returns ‘to the world.’
Ephraim could hardly sleep when he got home that night. The preacher had made it clear that purification cannot be attained automatically. First, one must experience the miracle of the new birth, next he must be attending worship session regularly. As for the 'fire baptism', he need at least six months of regular special bible classes for new converts.
The next day Ephraim found himself in the church. Soon he became a regular member of the special ‘infant classes created for the new members of the church. It does not matter whether one was born a Christian. The moment you join the sect, you are required to attend the infant class before purification could be attained.
Ephraim gradually warmed up to the new experience. But he was to learn that the ways of the cross was no easy road. For example, members were not allowed to own television sets which the sect described as the ‘devil’s box’. They can not listen to music. All they were entitled to listen were the audio messages by the leader of the sect. It was a mortal sin to be caught watching a television.
Further, members were to restrict their interactions with non members including their kinsmen. Social visits to relations and kinsmen were prohibited. Membership of Ethnic and town union Association meetings were not allowed. Other meetings including ones organized by other Christian groups were not allowed. These were indeed harsh rules particularly total abstinence from alcohol. They were difficult ways of life but it was worth it if it held the solution to his many years of misery.
But he was soon to be disillusioned. After one year of full membership and keeping to all the rules of the sect, nothing changed. A regular job remained as elusive as ever. He still fed his family on casual jobs. For Ephraim, cutting himself from his ethnic meetings was like plucking his flesh from the bone. He did not give them up without some arguments on the rationale behind such unusual way of life.
‘But they are my kinsmen and I do not have anything against them,’ he had protested to the Pastor during a counseling session one Monday morning.
‘The Bible says evil communication corrupt good manners. They are your carnal kinsmen. Your real kinsmen are your brothers and sister in Christ. The ones out there are the children of darkness because they have not been purified by the blood of the lamb. They will corrupt you and drag you back to Egypt if you do not leave them. The Bible says woe unto them that go back to Egypt and rely on horses and chariots.’
‘Sir, but I could still partake in their meetings without taking alcohol and indulging in their excesses which my faith new in Christ forbids.’
‘No. You can not put new wine in an old bottle. Only total surrender makes a total Christian. Only the total Christian can inherit the Kingdom of God. All your gains in this world are but a waste if you failed to make God’s Kingdom. Jesus warned that anybody who is not willing to leave his father and mother and his kinsmen and carry his cross and follow him is not fit to get Visa to Heaven. You must leave the world in its entirety for Christ’s sake. Renouncing your kinsmen is part of the sacrifice you have to make to attain everlasting life.’
‘But can I pay condolence visits to them when they are bereaved?’
‘Go and read your bible again. Jesus said; let the dead bury their dead. The bible says those who rejected the gospel of the kingdom are all dead spiritually even though they are still physically alive because they have rejected the message of the only begotten son of the most High God.’
‘But what in the event I suddenly die..? God forbid, who will take my remains to the village for proper burial in line with the tradition?’
‘You cannot die! Jesus says anyone who believes in him will never see death. But if you are called home to glory like our beloved sister Uche who was called home via a motor accident recently, your brethrens will take your mortal remains to your village for burial. Besides, it does not matter even if you die and left to rot away without a burial. The most important thing is to die in Christ. On the day of resurrection even the sea will give up its dead.’
‘But how do I break away from my town Union meeting?’
‘Write them a formal letter,’ said the Pastor in an authoritative tone. ‘In the letter, tell them in clear terms that you have ceased being their member because darkness and light have no communion.’
Ephraim did exactly that when he got home. But it only worsened the relationship between him and his wife. Earlier she had described his conversion to the new faith as an act of madness and bluntly refused to have anything do with any of their members who regularly came visiting him.
To make matters worse, she was sent packing from the women wing of the Association because women whose husbands were non members were not allowed membership. The couple stopped talking to each other as a result. But the person assigned to counseling him told him it was worth it. The Kingdom of God was worth paying any price to attain it.’ He was told to rejoice because he has been counted worthy to suffer for righteousness sake.
‘Have you not heard what Jesus told his disciples? He said he has not brought peace into the world but strife, for father shall rise against son and husband shall rise against the wife all for His sake. If your wife whom you married from the sweat of your struggle cannot give you comfort, I say unto you, rejoice because you have a beautiful home above. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the kingdom of God.,’ he concluded with a quotation from Sermon on the Mount.
At this stage the local branch Pastor had picked interest on Ephraim for his mind probing questions. He was greatly comforted by the Pastor’s words and his zeal burned like fire. Hew was never found wanting in any of the church activities. After two years of membership he was a bible study teacher. This was after he had undergone series of in-house seminars and retreats.
But getting a regular job had had become elusive as ever and his economy remained on the debit side. He ran his family mainly on part time jobs at building sites. Matters were made worse by the fact that he was so committed to the Lord’s Vineyard that he sometimes forgo scarce casual job for church activities. But things became so bad at a point that his children were sent out of school because he could not meet up with their school fees.
One day it suddenly occurred to him that the church had lost interest in him. They now shift their attention to ensuring that new members were committed. They sent new members after new members to him to nurture and groom.
Greater attention was paid to acquiring new members usually lured from other churches who had one problem or the other just like him. Their style was very simple but very effective. It was something like this: Find out what he/she needs. Promise to get it for him and work towards it and you will win he or her over. In the end some get their problems solved. But some don’t. Ephraim belong to the later category. You are ‘abandoned’ to Christ as soon as you have undergone the experience of ‘purification’, sanctification’ and the all important ‘fire baptism’ whether you earthly troubles were taken care of or not.
Ephraim’s fortune plunged from bad to worse following his ‘fire baptism’ which was considered the last phase of salvation. Gradually, as his material fortunes waned, his zeal for heaven waned too. On more than one occasion the pastor frowned at his lack-luster attitude to church activities.
One day he decided to stop attending services of the sect. He was through with them. They cared for his spiritual welfare but were not bothered about the material even when the spirit can not survive in the absence of the flesh. True indeed, the bible will save his soul from perishing in hell, but a good job and enough money will save his life. It is true he wants to inherit the Kingdom of God.
But he must stay alive till when he was due to die and get his visa to heaven. Money and not the bible will do that for him. He tried to rejoin his kinsmen again at the town union meeting. But they were still angry with the offensive letter he wrote them some two years back severing relationship with them due to his new-found faith. They told him they were ever too willing to receive him back into their fold. After all they were happy he has returned to his senses.
He was once lost, misguided by a strange teaching but was now found like the prodigal son But he must pay a fine of five thousand naira in addition to clearing all his outstanding dues. Everything amounted to ten thousand naira. For a man who can hardly afford three square meals a day, the amount was like a million naira. In the end, he had no alternative than to remain alone. He was neither with the True Believers nor his Town Union People.
But he soon got bored with the entire situation. One day he left the house without a word to his wife. When he did not return after two days, she raised an alarm. She ran from members of the town union to the True Believers Bible Church begging for assistance and sympathy. They gave her the later but denied her the former. When no clue or help was forth coming from all angles, she went to the police.
She was taken to the numerous general hospitals with mortuaries. It was in one of these hospitals that she identified the decomposing remains of her husband. The body was reportedly found floating in the bar beach. Doctor’s report says he died of drowning. But whether he was drowned accidentally or through suicide will remain a subject of speculation for now as the police are still investigating the matter.
But the real source of worry for now was that the morgue where his remains was being kept was not functioning properly just like most public facility in the sick and overcrowded city. The hospital advised he should be taken away immediately and buried or be embalmed pending when the burial will take place. But there was nobody to foot the bill. His relatives at home were too poor to heed his wife’s call for assistance. Again, the wife started a fresh round of visits to members of his town union and his the True Believers Bible Church pleading with them to do something to take away the shame. But both group disowned the late Ephraim as a
non member and as such cannot do anything for him.
When the three days ultimatum the hospital gave expired, workers from the Metropolitan Sanitary Council came and removed the body together with five other unclaimed bodies and buried them at a mass grave outside the unsympathetic city.
But the story of Ephraim was far from being over. Trouble is brewing in Orumba village, in the south east where Ephraim’s kinsmen insist certain rites must be performed to avert the anger of the gods for burying a full blooded son of the soil outside his ancestral village without the appropriate funeral. THE END.
Patrick Tagbo is the author of Cobwebs in the Sky, a novel published by Apex Books Ltd, Lagos, Nigeria. He lives and works in Abuja, Nigeria.
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